If you are thinking about or have just started in amateur astronomy you will find star charts, (which are just maps of the sky) most useful for locating stars and constellations, at least until you become more familiar with their names.
A casual look at a clear moonlight sky will reveal thousands of stars. However the way to start is to locate a prominent star pattern and use it as a starting point. For the winter observer there is no better celestial object that the constellation of Orion.
Another very familiar pattern throughout the year is the constellation of Ursa Major, commonly referred to as the Great Bear, Plough or Big Dipper. The seven stars that make up this pattern lie low to the north horizon in the winter months.
Now, at first this new kind of map may appear to be somewhat challenging to get to grips with, but after a short while you will find it no more difficult than reading an atlas.
In fact you will find handy pocket sized books available in local book stores or online to keep with you, or you can access one of the many websites that offer free access to their digital star charts.
Here are a few popular resources on astronomy charts
'Your Sky' by John Webb is an interactive planetarium showing the entire sky as viewed from a given location at a specified time and date and is a great online resource.
The DeepMap 600 is a Folding Star Chart that folds up like just like a road map, and shows positions of the 600 finest celestial objects that are visible from the Northern Hemisphere.
All are plotted on a giant 33" x 21" full-color star chart by world-renowned star-mapper Wil Tirion. DeepMap 600 is designed for easy location of hundreds of deep-sky objects with telescopes and binoculars.
Color-coded symbols identify more than 500 galaxies, nebulas, and star clusters,including all 109 Messier objects, as well as some 100 of the most interesting double and variable stars.
A planisphere is one kind of star chart in the form of two adjustable disks that rotate on a common pivot. It can be adjusted to display the visible stars for any time and date.
You can begin by selecting a pattern of 2 or 3 bright stars in a well know constellation in the general location of the constellation or star you are searching for than follow an imaginary line to the area you wish to explore.
Or if you're into gadgets... there are sophisticated devices such as the Celestron SkyScout Personal Planetarium which is an innovative handheld device that utilizes sophisticated global positioning system technology with point and click convenience in order to identify countless stars, planets and constellations.
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